Nazareth - Already-strained relations between Israel and Europe hit an all-time low this week after a leaked internal European report on the so-called peace process criticised Israel in unprecedented terms.
The document, which warned that the chances of a two-state solution were rapidly fading, appeared to reflect mounting exasperation among the 27 European member states at Israel’s refusal to revive talks with the Palestinians.
Israeli newspapers, reporting on the developing crisis, have led with headlines such as “Israel vs Europe.” One, Israel Today, known to be close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, recently announced “Europe becomes irrelevant,” in an echo of a rebuff to the Europeans issued by Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s far-right foreign minister.
Israeli observers have warned that a falling-out with Europe is the last thing Israel needs, following its recent fallout with key strategic allies in the region, such as Turkey and Egypt.
The tensions have been provoked by the emergence of what appears to be an increasingly independent European approach towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, suggesting a possible break with the EU’s traditional submissiveness towards the United States’ Middle East agenda.
European powers appear to be balking at the prospect that the two-state solution is about to slip out of grasp, as Netanyahu’s rightwing government refuses to make meaningful concessions and speeds up the pace of settlement-building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. That would end the framework of the Oslo accords, a diplomatic process that Europe has invested in heavily and which has dictated the West’s approach to peace-making for nearly two decades.
The EU’s critical stance has been expressed most clearly in two internal documents that were leaked separately to the Israeli media over the past weeks. Both suggest that European states are seeking to become actively involved in areas of Palestinian life under Israeli rule, possibly taking on a stewardship role, even if – as seems certain – it would risk angering Israel.
In particular, the EU appears to be considering radical moves to push its own agenda in relation both to the large Palestinian minority living inside Israel and to the Palestinians in the so-called “Area C” of the West Bank, which covers nearly two-thirds of the occupied territory and was placed under full Israeli control by the Oslo accords.
Until now, Europe had mainly restricted its criticisms to Israeli activities in occupied East Jerusalem.
Europe’s reluctance to go public with either document indicates the great sensitivity of its proposed more activist role. In the report on Israel’s Palestinian minority, a copy of which has been seen by Al-Akhbar, European embassies warn that “we need to be sensitive about perceptions of foreign interference in issues which Israel sees as a strictly internal question.”
An Israeli official quoted by the Jerusalem Post newspaper on Friday was dismissive that the reports would have any impact on the ground, suggesting it would not affect the official positions adopted in Brussels.
However, the documents do indicate that pressure is mounting on European states, which collectively have been the largest donor to the Palestinians during the Oslo period, to take a firmer line against Israeli intransigence. Public opinion in many leading European countries has become far more critical of Israeli policies than their governments.
In addition, the demise of the Oslo process threatens to provoke further conflict in a region already undergoing political upheavals that Europe fears may spill over on to its own shores.
The paper leaked this week, on Israel’s control of the largest area of the West Bank, uses particularly confrontational language, arguing that Israel has “continuously undermined” a Palestinian presence there and is “rapidly closing the window” on a two-state solution.
Using phrases that imply Israel is conducting a policy of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in Area C, the report notes the Palestinian population has shrunk dramatically to only 150,000, compared to as many as twice that number in the Jordan Valley alone in 1967. The Jewish population in the settlements, meanwhile, has grown to 310,000, tripling in less than 20 years.
The 16-page report, which was written by European heads of mission in Jerusalem and Ramallah, was leaked to Israel’s popular Ynet website this week and has been seen by Al-Akhbar too.
A diplomat told the Israeli media that all the European governments backed the document: “What’s special about this report is that we are all partners in it and agree on the wording.”
The paper blames a raft of Israeli policies for what is termed “forced transfer of the native population.” These include home demolitions, severe prohibitions on construction, settlement expansion, movement restrictions, and denial of access to land and water.
The result of Palestinian migration to other parts of the West Bank is that less than 6 percent of the territory’s Palestinians now reside in an area that is expected to comprise the majority of any future Palestinian state. Area C, the paper notes, includes “crucial natural resources and land for the future demographic and economic growth of a viable Palestinian state.”
A European official in Israel, who wished to remain anonymous, said the report highlighted growing concerns in Europe that the viability and territorial contiguity of a Palestinian state was being undermined by Israel’s policies in Area C and East Jerusalem, leading to a series of “ghettoes.”
The report recommends that the EU take an active role in promoting Palestinian economic development and backing infrastructure projects related to roads, water, schools and medical clinics to “support the Palestinian people and help maintain their presence [in the area].” No mention is made of Israeli involvement or cooperation.
In a sign of the mounting concern about the loss of direction in the so-called process, another added: “The continuation of settlement construction will lead to one state for two peoples. We don't know where this government is leading [Israel] to or what its position is regarding the peace process.”
The report, which was completed in July 2011, may have been one of the reasons for an unexpectedly harsh statement from Britain, France, Germany and Portugal last month at the United Nations, expressing “dismay” at Israel’s settlement policy.
The four EU states, all currently members of the Security Council, condemned Israeli plans to speed up settlement construction in the West Bank. They also castigated Israel for failure to control extremist groups among the settlers, who have grown increasingly bold in launching violent attacks on Palestinians, including burning crops and torching mosques.
The UN action coincided with the submission, by Andrew Standley, the EU ambassador to Israel, of a formal protest to Israel’s foreign ministry over the growing number of house demolitions in Area C and the economic distress of its Palestinian inhabitants. The statement was reportedly agreed to after the EU’s foreign ministers received the Area C report.
Standley’s letter also highlighted EU concerns about a plan for the so-called E1 zone, between Jerusalem and the settlement of Maale Adumim in the West Bank. Israel is currently threatening to clear out 2,500 Bedouin living at the site to prepare for the construction of a new settlement called Mevasseret Adumim, which would connect with Maale Adumin, increasing Israel’s hold on East Jerusalem and cutting the West Bank in two.
Two weeks earlier similar fears were expressed in a letter to Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister, by Kristalina Georgieva, the European commissioner for international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis response.
Lieberman, Israel’s far-right foreign minister, responded to the rebukes by accusing the Europeans of “interfering” in an internal Israeli issue and of “losing their credibility and making themselves irrelevant.” He also advised Europe to concentrate instead on "peacemaking in bloodshed hotspots” such as Syria.
Tzipi Livni, leader of the opposition Kadima party, warned that Israel was “starting a war against its closest friends in Europe.” Meanwhile, the liberal Haaretz newspaper argued that, with the loss of Europe, Washington was now “the only barrier between Israel and international isolation – which borders on strategic danger.”
Last month Lieberman also expressed outrage at another secret EU report, this one a draft by European embassies in Israel on an even more sensitive subject – Israel’s Palestinian minority. The paper, which was completed in November, was leaked to Haaretz late last month. The Israeli foreign ministry accused the EU of drafting it “behind our backs”.
The 27-page report breaks new ground in proposing that the EU play a central part in protecting the interests of Palestinians within Israel’s borders rather than only in the occupied territories.
It catalogues widespread discrimination in education, employment, housing and access to land, notes a surge in legislative proposals targeting the Palestinian minority and “a political climate in which discriminatory rhetoric and practice go unsanctioned.”
It suggests that Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian citizens should move from being “second tier to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” to a “core issue.” It adds that Israel’s obligation to “ensure the equality of all its citizens” cannot wait on a revival of the stalled peace process. Tackling inequality, it concludes, “is integral to Israel’s long-term stability.”
A long list of recommendations for the EU to implement include lobbying against discriminatory laws, encouraging greater investment by European hi-tech firms in Arab areas, ensuring each European state “adopts” an Arab community, and awarding more scholarships for Arab students.
According to the Israeli media, several EU states, including the Netherlands, objected to these recommendations, but appear to have the backing of many key states.
The proposal to step up EU involvement inside Israel is particularly controversial given that Israel has vehemently objected in recent months to European funding of local human rights groups that assist Palestinians inside both Israel and the occupied territories.
The cabinet has given its support to legislation that would severely limit foreign donations – chiefly from the EU – to such groups and heavily tax any remaining funding. Netanyahu put the bills on hold last month after coming under fierce criticism from Washington and Europe.
The crisis in relations with Europe was one of the main topics under discussion at Israel’s annual ambassadors’ meeting in Jerusalem, held over the Christmas break when Western capitals go into brief hibernation. More than 100 senior diplomats attended, with ambassadors to Europe reporting that they felt “hated and unwanted,” and as isolated as at any time as they could remember in Israel’s history.
The pessimistic, consensual forecast at the meeting was that developments in the region, especially the Arab Spring, have ruled out any progress in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians for at least the coming year.
Netanyahu’s advisers offered their own warnings that the diplomatic impasse would not let up and Israel’s international standing, especially in Europe, was likely to erode yet further.